When the Dallas Stars announced Ken Hitchcock as their next coach, we expected to hear the usual introductory words and clichés thrown around. There Hitchcock sat, obviously happy and pleased to be back, saying millennials over and over. You wouldn’t be crazy to assume he was speaking of them (us?) in a negative light, but no, not this time.
Ken Hitchcock: Friend of Millennials appears to be a thing. If you’re a millennial looking for a band name you can take “Hitch and The Millennials” free of charge.
Look, it’s weird, but then it isn’t. We think of Hitchcock as an all-encompassing totalitarian capable of crushing the soul of any professional athlete with a bemused scowl on his face. That doesn’t mean he’s stupid or incompetent though. There always comes a point where approaches need to change, and old tactics and goals get filtered through new approaches to reach a new generation. Hitchcock is still going to set the same goals, but it sounds like he’s going to go about getting there in a different way.
What is a millennial? In short, me. I am a millennial. Hello.
The longer answer, according to the Pew Research Center, is anyone who is currently 20-36. Why this is important to someone like Ken Hitchcock should be pretty obvious, but in case it isn’t take a stroll down the Dallas Stars Hockey Reference page. The only non-millennial is Denis Guryanov, and that’s only because he’s technically too young. The Dallas Stars are a team full of millennials in a league full of millennials. It would be foolish not to consider what makes them tick.
During his press conference, Hitchcock spoke about going to a conference that dealt with how to work with millennials in New York after he got fired. This is the closest I could find to what he was talking about, and it fits the timeline. Whether this is the exact event or not isn’t really the point. When people discuss working with millennials, the same few topics inevitably come up, as they no doubt did there. Engagement, technology, neediness, and short attention spans will be topics of conversation.
At the root of all of these ideas is trust. TheCoachesSite references a talk Hitchcock gave in 2012: “When it comes to working hard day in and day out, players want to understand what’s in it for them. Coach Hitchcock says that today’s player is cynical, and if you think about it for a second you’ll know it’s true. Sure, every athlete wants the team to do well, but they want to know precisely how they’ll benefit from that success. Like never before, the trust between a player and a coach is the key to success both for the team and for the individual.”
Building trust is going to be a key, but how do you do that? You have to show the players, particularly the key players, that you are invested in their personal success, and that you want to show them how to make themselves personally better. The end goal of making the team better is still there, but you present it through the lens of the individual.
He has already started. Hitchcock already referenced how good Jamie Benn is, and called on him to become a more vocal and better captain. He already said he sees Tyler Seguin as a No. 1 center who plays in all situations. And that’s just what we’ve publicly seen. If the key guys buy in, then everyone else will follow.
From the sounds of it, Hitchcock already has Benn on board. There is a lot of awesome stuff in that link, but I want to focus on the initial meeting Hitchcock and Benn had after the hiring. As usual, Mike Heika has some wonderful information to pass along. Hitchcock called the relationship between he and his captain “everything” and the two went on:
“‘The talk was a little uncomfortable for both of us, but we weren't glossing over things,’ Hitchcock said. ‘We had to dig deep so we could fix what needed to get fixed. And I feel we can get this fixed and get this thing turned the other way.”
Quoted in the same article, Benn echoed the same feelings.
‘We pretty much talked about everything and how he deals with his top players and his leaders,’ Benn said. ‘There's going to be a lot more responsibility for myself as a captain in communicating with him and letting him get a better feel for our team. It's something I'm excited for. It's not going to be easy, but in the end, it helps you win.’”
Honesty and communication are the two most important aspects for building trust. The lines of communication seem pretty well open right now. Yet trust alone isn’t going to win games, and it isn’t revolutionary or particularly unique for millennials. How Hitchcock communicates is going to be very important.
This group communicates differently and absorbs information differently than older generations. If you stand in front of a group of younger people and talk for 30-45 minutes at a time, they tune out regardless of background. I see it on a daily basis in high school, too. If lessons aren’t chunked into what teacher-lingo calls “comprehensible input,” the returns diminish quickly past a certain point. Having Benn on board to facilitate the message will be a huge help to Hitchcock getting his points across.
In 2015 the San Francisco 49ers started to “cater” towards millennials as a group. The Wall Street Journal published an article that detailed many of the efforts coach Jim Tomsula took to aid his team. GrowingLeaders.com broke the article down further. They detailed the “chunking” the 49ers engaged in:
“For starters, they are adjusting to accommodate shorter attention spans. They used to hold two-hour meetings with no breaks, like most professional football teams do. They now break up their meetings into 30 minute increments, offering 10-minute breaks for players to, as Tomsula puts it, “Go grab your phone, do your multi-tasking and get your fix” before returning to the meeting.”
Technology finally comes up here, too. If you talk to a group of younger people for an extended period of time and expect to keep their attention or have them get anything out of it, you’re out of your mind. Visual aids, technology, and having them involved through discussion with hands on activities in short bursts are how you get the most out of sessions. The key for Hitchcock if he goes down the millennial rabbit hole will be to use the wealth of technology available to him to visually model for individual players how he wants things done and why it’s necessary for things to be done that particular way.
The 49ers also used technology in other ways that seem obvious to many of us:
“Another shift implemented involves sending electronic alerts that players can access on their tablet or smartphone (instead of the usual printed schedule). A few coaches were hesitant about this move at first. Missing a meeting is a serious offense, and a system that’s vulnerable to technological glitches could allow an athlete to miss one. After a few weeks, however, that concern has proven to be groundless."
You may be asking, “didn’t the 2015 49ers stink?” Yes, they were 5-11 and awful. Talent and coaching ability are still very important, but reaching this generation the way they communicate maximizes how much of the message hits the target. I’ve personally seen a student with severe attention issues become a productive member of the classroom by simply having all her assignments on a touchscreen Chromebook with headphones. It may seem absurd, but it works.
It would be hard to be anything but impressed with the early comments coming from Ken Hitchcock. He’s making what seem to be the right moves off the ice early on to implement his program. It remains to be seen how this team looks in the coming months, but barring something awful his track record suggests things will be looking up.
And maybe, just maybe, this focus on millennials will pay off.